When she refused to sign a form renouncing the Falun Gong, Wang Chunying said she was handcuffed between two bunkbeds and deprived of food, water and sleep for 16 hours as her wrists bled.
“The police would kick the beds apart to the point that my body couldn’t stretch any further,” she said of the time she spent in a Chinese labor prison in late 2007. “The pain that I had to endure was beyond words. The handcuffs already touched the bone and police still kept tightening them to make them hurt more.”
Wang, who now lives in the US, belongs to the Falun Gong, a movement banned in China in 1999. Practitioners have long spoken of abuse at “re-education-through-labor” camps as authorities try to stamp out the faith.
The accounts received new attention from an unlikely source last month, when Chinese-language cultural magazine Lens broke through the censorship and published an article on the Masanjia women’s camp in Liaoning Province, where Wang spent more than five years.
The magazine described detainees being hit with electric prods on the face, hung by the arms, shackled to seats bent forward and forced to sit on “tiger stools,” which involved being handcuffed into painful positions for hours.
The article was quickly scrubbed from the Internet, but it raised speculation that Chinese opponents of such harsh detention methods may have been sending a message.
“I agree that it’s unlikely that an article exposing that level of human rights abuses would have been published if the magazine had not had some behind-the-scenes support,” said Corinna-Barbara Francis, who has researched Masanjia and other labor camps in China for Amnesty International.
Voices within China’s legal establishment and universities have called for changes. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said in March that the government may present a plan by the end of the year to reform the re-education camp system.
However, Francis said that purported statements by officials on closing camps have quickly vanished, meaning that little is known on the extent of reforms.
However daring, Lens did not directly mention the Falun Gong.
The Falun Gong are said to be recalcitrant in refusing to sign forms to renounce the movement, which combines Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophies.
Wang said that she and the hundreds of other practitioners at Masanjia sat each morning from 8 to 11:30 listening to anti-Falun Gong videos and guest speakers. She would then be forced to manufacture artificial flowers until 9 pm.
“A lot of people would cough and get rashes from the chemicals. I couldn’t even breathe whenever I smelled them,” she said.
A 2009 UN report estimated that 190,000 Chinese were locked up in re-education camps, which were first set up in the 1950s, but officials say the total is 60,000.
Ma Chunmei said she was sent to a camp in Jilin Province, for being in a Falun Gong procession. She said she was forced to work for up to 19 hours a day.
In one session, Ma said policemen beat her with two electric batons and stomped on her.
“I felt my heart was going to jump out. I was vomiting blood, but still I refused to sign,” Ma said.